Rahman was out buying food when Spanish police handed him a €500 fine for breaking coronavirus restrictions. “I’ll pay this as soon as I get a residence permit,” he told them. He laughs as he recalls the incident. “Look how thin I’ve become, I weigh only 57 kilos,” he says. The 21-year-old Palestinian shows his skinny 5ft 7in frame over the webcam.

He speaks in Swedish mixed with Norwegian expressions – his capacity in both languages is testament to the nearly five years spent between the countries as an adolescent. They were formative years, where he learned that even apparently kind gestures such as the offer of a place to stay could open the door to unfathomable cruelty.

It was a time when no matter what Rahman suffered, the legal right to remain in Europe eluded him. His lack of status enabled appalling crimes to be committed against him, and it left the criminals unpunished. He has been exploited and deported but his dream of Europe endures. He has found his way back to the continent but the future is uncertain.

Dreamers is the US term collectively given to young people without legal immigration status who were brought to the US as children. Some young people living in Europe without legal status now also call themselves ‘dreamers’ because their struggle against hostile European migration and asylum policies echoes the US campaign. Between 3.9 and 4.8 million people in Europe are believed to be living without residency permits, about 65% of whom are under 35 years old, according to the Pew Research Center. In the UK, a recent University of Wolverhampton study commissioned by the mayor of London estimated there are 332,000 children and young people living undocumented in the UK, including 106,000 children born in the country. Estimating numbers of undocumented people necessarily involves guesswork – and the methodologies are often criticised – but it is thought there are millions of dreamers across Europe. 

In October 2013, 15-year-old Rahman arrived in Sweden alone. Like so many other young refugees, he had heard good things about Sweden: children are protected, they get to attend school and feel safe, their rights are respected and almost all get to stay.

He grew up in Jordan, his Palestinian parents refugees from Gaza. Jordan’s citizenship laws had no place for Rahman, leaving him stateless. When the war in Syria was in its third year, his father wanted to send him across the border to fight the Syrian regime. His mother disagreed and the teenager fled to what she hoped would be a place of safety.

In Sweden, Rahman lived in a refugee shelter, started school and quickly learned the language. He played football in his spare time. But despite his young age and troubles in Jordan, the court of migration in Stockholm rejected his asylum application in the summer of 2014.

With no idea of what to do, Rahman left the youth hostel in Stockholm to avoid being deported, and cut off contact with his state-appointed guardian.

That is when he met Martin: a man in his 30s, with a shaved head and heavy gold chains around his neck. Once Martin understood Rahman’s situation, he invited him to a flat in central Stockholm.

I had nowhere to go. No money. And there was no one to help me

When he got there Rahman was shocked. Some people were sniffing glue, others were using cocaine. He was given a drink – his first taste of alcohol. The night became a haze. Martin took him into a room. Rahman was struck to the ground and felt hands on his body.

The rapes and beatings continued for months. Martin threatened to kill him if he tried to run away. Rahman had seen guns and knives around the flat and did not dare argue or ask questions. “I had nowhere to go. No money. And there was no one to help me,” he says.

A lot of people came to the flat, and it was Rahman’s job to keep it clean. He was given takeaway food and drugs. Martin would call at any hour and send him off with a bag and address to deliver it to. He was sent on drug trips across Europe, for which he was given new clothes, a fake passport and a bag to carry. Rahman, usually on drugs, slept through the flights.

He is among thousands of children who have come to Sweden in recent years only to go missing when their European dreams are shattered. According to the Swedish migration agency, 2,014 unaccompanied minors are missing without trace since 2013 – equivalent to almost 70 school classes. The threat of deportation is often mentioned as a reason for these disappearances, as is human trafficking.

But no one really knows, because no one is searching for them. The police keep records but often do not actively search for the children. Municipalities say children no longer resident in their area are not their responsibility. The migration agency says it cannot examine the cases of missing children. In 2016, the UN human rights committee criticised Sweden for failing to prevent these disappearances.

Many, like Rahman, are vulnerable to abuse and traffickers. According to a 2015 survey by a Swedish government agency, most suspected child trafficking cases involved unaccompanied minors. At that time, no trafficking investigations involving unaccompanied minors had resulted in a prosecution.

To understand where the system was failing, I researched every suspected case of trafficking of minors in Sweden during a four-year period up to 2015. According to police reports and preliminary investigations, more than half of the cases involved sexual slavery, in which nearly half of the victims were boys. The police’s failed response to trafficking was systemic.

Rahman was one of those cases. I tracked him down in Norway. After several months, he had managed to escape Martin. On reaching Norway, he again applied for asylum and reported his experience of trafficking to authorities. Rahman and his lawyer felt the authorities did not take his case seriously. Because the alleged trafficking took place in Sweden, Norwegian police passed the investigation to their Swedish colleagues. Rahman did not trust the investigators in either country. They did not seem to realise how dangerous it would be for him to single out Martin with no witness protection.

Shortly after Rahman turned 18, we spent a few days at a seaside resort. Surrounded by glittering Norwegian fjords, he and his court-appointed guardian sat outside on a mild summer evening. He leaned against her with his big ragged hair and gentle smile. “She’s like a mother to me,” he said.

The Swedish trafficking investigation was eventually dropped. His asylum application in Norway was also rejected. Now 18, he was no longer technically a child. In the summer of 2018, he was deported to Jordan.

After nearly five years in Europe, Rahman struggled with the more socially controlled society in Jordan. He could not return to his strictly religious family: he now smoked, drank alcohol and wore an earring. Without a Jordanian ID, he had no access to medical care or hope of returning to education.

The police seemed to relish harassing him. They would ask: why were you in Europe? Why have you come back? He was even mocked by friends and relatives: where’s the money, the success, the expensive things? For a while he worked 12-hour days at a tourist bazaar for wages that did not cover his rent. After a few weeks he decided to leave again.

First he attempted to sail to Greece via Turkey but the yellow dinghy was stopped by Turkish coastguards. After a month and a half in a Turkish prison, he returned to Jordan. He had a Norwegian girlfriend at the time. As a European, she could come to visit for a few weeks. Rahman has none of these options.

I can’t build a life here. I want to go to Europe again. I am never giving up

His friends in Norway arranged for him to stay with people they knew in Kosovo and he planned to continue overland further into Europe. But he was arrested in Montenegro and sent back to Kosovo. He became severely ill and returned to Jordan. But he was already making new plans to reach Europe.

“I can’t build a life here,” he said in the summer of 2019. “I want to go to Europe again. I am never giving up.”

This time he went to Morocco. Rahman knew this was his most dangerous journey so far. “But I am going to make it, I am sure of it,” he insisted. Later that summer, he reached the Moroccan border with the Spanish enclave of Melilla.

This gateway to Europe is marked with high razor wire fences and monitored by drones. Migrants and Moroccan boys his age were everywhere, hoping to get through the border at night. Some had been trying for months, even years. Rahman’s plan was to swim around the sea fences, a treacherous feat as border guards sometimes fire plastic bullets at swimmers. His first four attempts failed and he was hurt in a fall before he finally managed to swim into the port of Melilla.

“I am so happy – I am in Europe again!” he said in a message.

Afraid of being forced back to Morocco, he stowed away onboard a cargo ship to mainland Spain. He was given a place in a refugee shelter and €50 a month to live on. But this assistance was cut after six months, just as the coronavirus pandemic hit Europe.

As we kept in touch over the years, I would always ask how he was and he always replied: “Good,” no matter the circumstances. He has to stay positive, he says, to keep going towards what he longs for: an ordinary life, with a home. He would like to study languages and maybe work with tourists as he is so used to meeting new people.

But there is little space to talk about the future right now. Rahman does not even know what tomorrow will bring, where he will sleep or how he will eat. He is considering two unwanted options: start selling drugs again or commit a crime deliberately to get caught. “If I get arrested, I have somewhere to live until corona is over,” he said.

Rahman’s European dream has brought him back. Despite the trials he has gone through, the stateless boy is now a young man but no closer to having papers. The asylum process in Spain is long, up to 18 months, and uncertain – and that was before the pandemic. He thinks of Sweden or Norway but doubts his chances. From Scandinavia to Jordan, he has never been granted the right to belong. “Why is that?” he asks. “Why can’t I be legal anywhere?”

Rahman’s name has been changed and his photograph in the main image obscured to protect his identity.

This article is part of a Guardian series called Europe’s dreamers, which tells the stories of undocumented young people in a climate of hardline European migration policies and border policing.

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